With knock-on effects like sickness absence, loss of productivity and diminished morale, it is estimated that mental health issues cost the UK economy anywhere between £70bn and £100bn a year.
Personal experience of working in a range of occupational health settings has shown me that being at work is actually beneficial for the majority of people with mental health problems. However, there is a lack of understanding about mental health in the workplace. And the stigma attached to it means that people may either fail to recognise a problem, or simply choose to conceal their symptoms.
This invariably results in delayed access to support or treatment. The existing symptoms often become compounded and are far harder to address.
So how can firms ensure that those with mental health problems receive treatment at the earliest opportunity?
Mental health first aid
While research suggests that many people would be willing to support colleagues at work who may be experiencing a mental health issue, most lack the confidence or the expertise to feel adequately equipped to do anything about it. This is where mental health first aid training can prove so effective.
Training would equip individuals with the necessary skills to recognise, understand and provide foundation support to colleagues who may be experiencing a mental health issue.
Just as physical first aid is offered to an injured person before full medical treatment can be obtained, mental health first aid is intended to be an interim step before a suitable onward referral can be made, and the immediate crisis resolved.
In a large number of instances, peer support is all that is required. And even in more complex situations, this initial contact can provide a supportive vehicle for encouraging the employee to overcome any apprehension about seeking more intensive support.
When individuals in the workplace are better trained in dealing with mental health issues, then they can play a more proactive and effective role in facilitating interventions and managing any required onward referrals to more dedicated professional support.
This means that those colleagues who are experiencing a mental health issue are more likely to remain at work, and are less likely to develop more severe symptoms which may ultimately exclude them from the workplace more permanently. The potential costs to the individual and the business are therefore vastly reduced in most cases.
It is perhaps no surprise that lots of organisations are beginning to switch on to the importance of greater peer-led support. Notable examples include Transport for London and the Metropolitan police.
Read more: Mental health: Know where you stand at work
Potential benefits of implementing a mental health first aid programme include a reduction in overall sickness absence, particularly frequent short periods of absence, as well as error rates and the number of accidents.
At the same time, such a scheme would improve work performance, productivity, output, creativity and decision-making, largely because staff would be more motivated, committed, and better at time-keeping. Retention rates would also go up, making such a programme a sound investment, when companies factor in the costs of hiring new staff, particularly at the highest levels of management.